Soundings

Edward John Craig
Snuffing Out Illegal Fireworks
How New York won another quality-of-life battle.
Summer 2000

Back in 1994, illegal fireworks killed one New Yorker and injured around 100 others. Kids playing with fireworks blew off their fingers, damaged their hearing—and shattered the nerves of their neighbors. On the Fourth of July, 1994, fireworks-related blazes pushed the number of calls to the Fire Department from the usual 90 to 335.

So in 1995 Mayor Giuliani formed the NYPD-FDNY Joint Fireworks Task Force to combat this quality-of-life problem. The operation has succeeded dramatically. In 1995, hospitals reported only 56 injuries due to fireworks, around half the previous year's; last year, the number fell to eight—an 86 percent decline from 1995. Serious fires caused by fireworks also dropped precipitously, from 17 in 1996 to just one last year.

How did the task force do it? Using the same techniques that have driven down the city's murder, auto-theft, and armed-robbery rates: aggressive intelligence gathering, geographically targeted enforcement, and interagency cooperation.

The task force first targeted the most blatant, street-level offenders. They fined stores openly selling fireworks. Chinatown's Canal and Mott Streets were, says Deputy Inspector Michael Brooks of the Joint Fireworks Task Force, "a farmer's market for fireworks," with reported sales of up to $5,000 a day for a single Chinatown vendor. People from all over the tri-state area poured in to purchase expensive—and dangerous—pyrotechnics for their July 4 celebrations.

In addition, the task force went after brazen street hawkers positioned at the mouths of the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, who'd jump into interested shoppers' cars and direct them to their own parked cars, trunks bursting with pyrotechnics. By seizing these street dealers' cars—47 of them in 1996—police quickly drove them out of business. The city seized only six cars for fireworks violations in 1997.

Grilling arrestees for information on their suppliers then led cops up the distribution chain. Seizures of fireworks from distributors rocketed upward—from 9,879 cases in 1996 to 27,697 cases in 1997. After the task force depleted the stockpiles of New York City suppliers, distributors in other jurisdictions became targets. Now transformed into a regional fireworks interdiction team—with members from an array of law-enforcement agencies in New York State and New Jersey, as well as from the ATF and the U.S. Customs Service—the task force makes ever-dwindling seizures as far away as Scranton, Pennsylvania.

In 1997, Mayor Giuliani extended his zero tolerance of fireworks to Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown, drawing the inevitable charges of cultural insensitivity from the New York Times. While it's true that Chinatown's New Year celebration involves only the relatively innocuous "ladyfinger" firecrackers—whose explosions, Chinese tradition has it, help chase away evil spirits—tacit police tolerance even of these Lilliputian explosives before the Giuliani crackdown allowed a remnant of the trade to continue.

Despite protests from a segment of the Chinatown community, the ban should continue, for lax law enforcement in one or two neighborhoods for "culturally sensitive" reasons can export trouble to the entire city.

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